Tuesday, 15 Jun 2021

Coal giant wins mine feud with 86-year-old nun and teenagers

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) – Australia’s pro-coal government and one of the country’s largest producers of the fossil fuel won a court battle against an 86-year-old nun and eight teenagers seeking to block a mine expansion over climate change.

The ruling paves the way for Whitehaven Coal to develop a project that will produce as much as 10 million tonnes a year of mostly metallurgical coal, used in steel-making. It is also a setback in a global wave of litigation by activists seeking to compel governments to take more forceful action to avert catastrophic climate change.

While campaigners had been correct to argue Environment Minister Sussan Ley has a duty of care to protect Australia’s youth from the future impacts of a warming planet, that would be reflected in the existing process of granting approvals to the mine project, Judge Mordy Bromberg said on Thursday (May 27) at the Federal Court of Australia in Melbourne.

“I have not been satisfied that a reasonable apprehension or breach of the duty of care by the minister has been established,” Judge Bromberg said.

Ms Ley “would foresee that by reason of the extension project’s effect on increased carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere and the consequential increase in global surface temperatures, each of the children is exposed to a risk of death or other personal injury”.

Whitehaven’s win comes a day after Royal Dutch Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to accelerate its work to cut emissions, a ruling seen as likely to have repercussions across the global fossil fuels industry.

“The company sees a continuing role for high quality coal in contributing to global carbon dioxide emissions reduction efforts while simultaneously supporting economic development in our near region,” the producer said in a statement.

Whitehaven shares rose as much as 3 per cent in early Sydney trading, trimming their decline this year to about 6.5 per cent as investors weigh longer-term prospects for the sector. Benchmark coal prices at Newcastle, one of the world’s biggest export terminals, have risen by almost a third.

The case was mounted by a group of eight teenagers, aged between 14 and 17, who are involved in the Greta Thunberg-inspired School Strike 4 Climate Australia protest group, Sister Brigid Arthur, who acted as a so-called litigation guardian, and climate-focused lawyers.

Lawsuits from the United States to the Philippines are seeking to press governments and companies to make faster efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, highlighting wildfires, floods and droughts that scientists argue are being exacerbated by climate change.

Germany’s highest court last month forced lawmakers to bring forward its net zero emissions goal by five years after ruling existing law put young people’s futures at risk by leaving most emissions cuts until after 2030. The ruling on Thursday against Shell is also seen spurring more challenges.

In Australia, one of the biggest per-capita polluters, climate-related lawsuits have targeted everything from a pension fund’s investments to risks in government bonds. The nation has also been criticised by investors and key allies, including the US, for not doing enough to combat global warming.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who once brandished a lump of coal in Parliament in support of the fuel, has declined to set a hard target date to reach net-zero emissions, in contrast to major trading partners Japan and China.

The government has also backed investments in new natural gas-fired power generation, and promoted a so-called “gas-led recovery” from the coronavirus pandemic.

More on this topic

The Whitehaven ruling will be a boost for fossil-fuel exporters as Australian lawmakers increasingly tie an economic recovery from the country’s first recession in three decades to the energy sector.

Australia is among the world’s biggest exporters of liquefied natural gas and coal.

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